Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 1 hours 51 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig, Kyra Sedgwick, Nina Arianda, Dylan Baker, Dianne Wiest, Charles Grodin
Based on the book by Philip Roth
Written by Buck Henry (Get Smart, Town & Country)
Directed by Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, You Don't Know Jack, Toys, Bugsy, Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam, The Natural, Diner)
Just as Michael Keaton was born to play Riggan Thomson in Birdman, so was Al Pacino born to play Simon Axler in The Humbling (opening today). Pacino is of course, a legendary actor and among the best of his generation. In The Humbling, he gives perhaps his best big-screen performance in nearly two decades, playing an aging actor who some criticize for "over-acting" from time to time, and a man who has all but lost his passion for the craft. That must sound familiar, no?
The opening scenes of The Humbling cackle with raw energy purely of Pacino's making. It is an extended monologue that gets us into the head of his character, Simon Axler, who is about to go on stage for a big Broadway performance. Pacino shows off facet after facet of his character's core, before accidentally locking himself out of his dressing room and then out of the theater all-together. When he tries to re-enter - dressed in costume as a vagrant - the security guards can't recognize him. Yes, Axler is so good at what he does, that he convinces people of who he is without even trying.
But we are shocked back into reality when Axler's head pops up and we are still in the dressing room. It had all been a vision, or a dream, or a nightmare. But the real nightmare was about to begin. When Axler finally takes the stage (for real this time?), he recites his lines and then throws himself off of the stage, face first onto the floor.
This may all sound like tragedy, and at its heart, I think The Humbling is one. It is also sharply funny and self-aware. As Axler is brought into the emergency room, he howls in pain. Then he asks the nurse, "Did you believe that moan right there?" Axler thinks he might have over-did it. So he tries a more convincing moan.
Those who may have followed Al Pacino's real-life career to this point know that he has a deep love - a passion - for William Shakespeare. He has appeared in several Shakespeare productions on stage, created an insightful, personal half-documentary a few years back called Looking for Richard (an inside exploration and search for understanding of Richard III) and also was Shylock in a recent adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Axler is well-schooled on Shakespeare, and his journey echoes that of King Lear, one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies.
Pacino indeed financed The Humbling himself, although the source material was written by famed scribe Phillip Roth. Although we've seen Pacino in what seems like hundreds of films, he strikes something new this time around, a side of him that we have never quite seen. And in what could be seen as a departure from several recent film roles, he molds Axler as an interesting, complex soul using the art of under-statement, instead of utilizing his usual, dominant, chew-up-the-scene style. This is not "over-acting" at all, in fact, it is the very essence of the craft.
Sadly, the opening third of the movie soon gives way to the rest of the film. Pacino is so mesmerizing in these early scenes, it becomes quite a distraction when you realize that there are other characters to meet and that this is not just a one-man show. Axler is in therapy via Skype with his psychologist (Dylan Baker) and he meets a crazy lady named Sybil (Nina Arianda) while in rehab, who is intent on not only killing her husband, but hiring Axler to do it. After his fall of the stage, he is still being pursued to perform, with his agent (where have you been all these years, Charles Grodin!) keeping him privy to any and all new inquiries.
But Axler is really thrown for a loop when he encounters Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), who is the daughter of former friends of his (played sharply, but briefly, by veterans Dan Hedaya and Dianne Wiest). They fall in love, despite their massive age gap and despite the fact that Pegeen has spent the past 17 years as a lesbian.
All of these absurd storylines collide, resulting in a jumbled mess of tone and plot. The incredibly intriguing Simon Axler needs to wade through all of the craziness to try to find a way to get inspired again.
Axler is a man who has lost passion for what he does, but more than that, he has lost sight of the difference between what is reality and what is fantasy. Oddly enough, he criticizes Sybil for not being able to distinguish between the two. He is confronted with so many incredulous situations, visions and delusions of grandeur, and odd discoveries about himself and others, that it made me begin thinking: What if in fact, he never woke up at the beginning? Could this entire experience be a convoluted projection of Axler's near-psychosis?
Despite being laugh-out-loud funny and witty at times, The Humbling stumbles so often as it moves along that I'd almost rather the whole movie be some sort of fantasy sequence. When I return to the beginning, where we are just left with Axler pondering his own existence and before the interference of others, this is a film and a performance to marvel at. If it isn't, and we are to believe that all of these occurrences really happened, then the movie itself has succumbed to the very thing that Axler loathed: Being fake. As this man searched desperately for deep inner-truth and meaning, The Humbling seemed to abandon that search very early on.
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